Like the American poet and physicianWilliam Carlos Williams, Kenji Miyazawa absorbed himself in ceaseless service to other people, whether his students or the local farmers. Like the American, Miyazawa, too, would jot down poems in the spare moments available to him. Unlike Williams, however, Miyazawa never seems to have considered a poem finished. With only one volume of poems published in his lifetime, Miyazawa worked steadily at revising and reworking his drafts. Three different sets of poems are titled Spring and Asura, a fact that suggests a common ground for a number of seemingly disparate works.
Spring and Asura
The first volume of Spring and Asura contains the title poem, a crucial poem that describes the poet caught up in intense visions of his own making. The persona narrates the vision from the viewpoint of an asura, that is, a being that ranks between humans and beasts in the six realms of existence in the Buddhist cosmology. (The six realms are devas, humans, asuras or demons, beasts, hungry ghosts, and dwellers in hell.) Despite the Buddhist references, the world of this asura is one of the poet’s own making. A close study of Miyazawa’s visionary poems by the American scholar Sarah Strong has uncovered a structure of levels—from a kind of Vacuum at the highest level (with the possibility of other worlds beyond) to the realm of the Western Marshes at the lowest. In between are various levels, with the Radiant Sea of Sky being the most complicated. The asura of Miyazawa’s poems rushes about in this universe, finding “ecstasy” and “brightness” at the upper levels while encountering “unpleasantness” and “darkness” toward the bottom. This “structure,” it must be noted, is not an immediately obvious feature of the poem. Indeed, to the untutored reader, many of Miyazawa’s poems will seem mystifying and kaleidoscopic. For many, the effect of reading such works will surely be dizzying.
Miyazawa’s visionary poems are difficult, but the poet has inserted passages that point the way to understanding. Preceding the Japanese text of “Spring and Asura,” for example, he has entered these words in English that indicate the nature of the work to follow: “mental sketch modified.” The initial volume of Spring and Asura also has an introductory poem or “Proem” preceding the title poem of the collection. In “Proem,” Miyazawa includes lines and phrases that appear to point quite definitely at his intentions. For example, the poet says that the sketch to follow represents the workings of his imagination over the past twenty-two months. His way of putting the matter may be unusual (each piece on paper is a “chain of shadow and light,” linked together “with mineral ink”), but the difficulty is more with the oddity of expression than with the meaning.
Elegies for Toshiko
Another set of poems by Miyazawa, the famous elegies composed upon the death of his sister Toshiko, also shows the imaginative energy of the poet. In this instance, however, the persona tends to stay within the normal and identifiable bounds of nature. The poet races outdoors to collect snow for comforting his dying sister or, after her death, wanders far beyond the region of the home in search of her whereabouts. The reader, however, knows exactly where the action is occurring. Bound to a specific and easily identifiable situation, these works seem more accessible than the aforementioned works from Spring and Asura.
Miyazawa’s elegies on Toshiko exhibit an idiosyncrasy of vocabulary and image equal to that of “Spring and Asura.” In contrast to the thematic uniqueness of this visionary poem, however, the elegies actually fit into a venerable tradition of Japanese poetry. Indeed, the elegy goes back to almost the beginnings of Japanese poetry in the Manysh (mid-eighth century; The Collections of Ten Thousand Leaves; also as The Ten Thousand Leaves, pb. 1981, and as The Manyoshu, 1940). Admittedly, the grief expressed by Miyazawa over the death of his sister seems more private and concentrated than the emotion found in certain of The Manyoshu elegies—in the partly ritualistic works by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, which mourn the deaths of the high nobility, to mention a celebrated example. At the same time, Miyazawa follows Hitomaro and other elegists of The Manyoshu in his search for a trace of the deceased in nature and in his refusal to be satisfied with...
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